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Pleasure islands
Superheroes, ‘super-readers,’ and the latest generation of mainstream comics

The cover of Birds of Prey: Sensei and Student (DC Comics) carries a blurb from Entertainment Weekly: "A well-written guilty pleasure." That phrase says a lot about the state of superhero comic books right now. They’re the wealthy stepchildren of the comics world — their sales drive the industry, but they can’t get any respect, even when they warrant it. So, if Sensei and Student is well written, why is it a guilty pleasure? What exactly is pleasurable about it? And where does the guilt come in?

The first few sticking points are obvious from the cover: six hot-looking babes in spandex, a series name with a little trademark sign next to it, and nine last names listed below the subtitle. There are genre conventions associated every step of the way with a superhero comic like Birds of Prey: costumes, heroes and villains, secret identities, physical fights, and especially back story and continuity. The Birds of Prey set-up is that Oracle, a wheelchair-bound ex-superheroine and computer genius with ties to Batman, works with a couple of field agents, notably Black Canary, who’s been in the hero game for many years and has a lot of psychological baggage. Sensei and Student collects seven issues of Birds in which Black Canary teams up with two untrustworthy assassins to try to find the people who killed her teacher.

It’s the work of a factory’s worth of artists, along with a single writer, Gail Simone, who’s circumscribed by the way other writers have defined the characters she’s working with. If you’re looking for an auteur, you’re not going to find it here. The usual assumption is that one creator (or sometimes two) means Art and any more than that means Product. That never stopped anybody from liking Six Feet Under or Ray, but it’s a major issue in comics. And the auteurists have a point: with the exception of the Neil Gaiman–written, revolving-door-drawn Sandman series, virtually every fondly remembered mainstream comic is the product of a single cartoonist or a writer/artist team who developed a distinct look and tone.

Product or not, Sensei and Student is absolutely a pleasure to read. Yes, there are cheap thrills — the phrase "kickboxing in wet lingerie" comes to mind — and it’s drawn in the smooth but generic style that future historians will call "mainstream comics circa 2005." But much of its fun comes from its deft handling of superhero conventions. One in particular drives Simone’s story, and it’s a specialty of serial comics: the interaction of larger-than-life characters whose evolution readers have been following for years or decades. Soap operas do that too — but their viewers can’t look back at the old stories the way comics readers can.

Sensei and Student revolves around a handful of characters whose back stories are unbelievably tangled up. To take just one example: Cheshire, the poisoner and international terrorist, is also the mother of a baby whose father is the former sidekick of Black Canary’s ex-boyfriend, Green Arrow, a small-time superhero, ex-junkie, and inveterate screw-up called Arsenal. (Draw a diagram if it helps.) Everything they do and say to each other is colored by their histories, and that’s what drives the plot.

Simone knows that there’s an enormous pleasure in watching characters act like themselves in even the smallest ways. And that is good writing for adventure comics — the conventions of the form aren’t a formula that just anyone can plug in. Gilbert Hernandez, one of the geniuses behind the Love & Rockets art-comics series, briefly wrote Birds of Prey a while back; by his own admission, it was a bellyflop.

What’s right about Sensei and Student, though, is also part of what’s wrong with mainstream comics. As the average age of their audience has crept upward over the past 20 years, their writers have become increasingly sure that readers know the characters and their back stories. And that’s a problem for new readers: nobody wants to have to be The Simpsons’ Comic Store Guy to enjoy an issue of Spider-Man. It’s no wonder that kids who’re starting to read comics now are turning to manga — translated Japanese comics, which don’t have that problem.

There’s also been a trend in the last 20 years or so toward tweaking the conventions of superhero comics — inverting them, questioning them, toying with their meanings and their limitations. Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen was the first great metacomic, in the mid ’80s, and they’ve kept coming: Kurt Busiek & Brent Anderson’s Astro City (which imagines how the presence of superheroes would change urban life), Warren Ellis & John Cassaday’s Planetary (the 20th century’s pulp-hero archetypes as members of a grand conspiracy), Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips’s Sleeper (superhero joins the villains’ team as a double agent and becomes so morally compromised that he no longer knows what side he’s on).

But the side effect of metacomics’ rise is that they’ve become the province of "super-readers," those who are so conversant in the minutiae of genre conventions and comics lore that it’s possible to make allusions to those minutiae the whole point of a story. There are series in which almost every major character is meant to be understood as a thinly disguised allusion to another comics character. Super-readers would have recognized a group of characters called the Elite in a recent Superman story line as conceptual stand-ins for the cast of The Authority — one of whom is, in turn, a stand-in for Superman. If at this point your brain is exploding like Krypton, that’s understandable.

The other problem afflicting mainstream comics is the one that writer Brian Michael Bendis evokes by describing two comics he writes — the Secret War mini-series and the current story line in The Pulse — as, respectively, the "Hollywood blockbuster" and "made-for-TV movie" versions of the same story. Secret War is a glossy, fast-moving thriller about international superhero skullduggery; The Pulse looks at that story’s supporting cast and the human cost of the big fight. And the big comics companies, having made a lot of money from Spider-Man and Batman movies, are pushing live-action versions of their comics as hard as they can and drafting makers of movies and TV shows to do comics, sometimes fruitfully: the current Astonishing X-Men story line, written by Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, is a bestseller.

All the same, thinking of comics in terms of other visual media limits their aspirations to what movies or TV can do and is apt to produce comics that are little more than pleas for licensing deals. Comics don’t work the same way film and video do — they have the capacity to show impossible things without having to make them look real, and to present a world transformed through an artist’s hand. And their secret weapon is the area between panels: they can suggest the passage of time and movement through space with a series of individual images.

Bendis, his descriptions aside, knows that perfectly well. His collaboration with artist Alex Maleev on Daredevil (Marvel) has been extraordinary; it’s the first time in 20 years that series hasn’t tried to evoke writer/artist/Sin City creator Frank Miller’s classic run in the early ’80s or else rebelled against it. The premise of the Bendis/Maleev Daredevil begins with a metacomics-ish twist on a familiar formula: Daredevil is outed as being blind lawyer Matt Murdock on a daily newspaper’s front page. Everybody knows the secret now — and the only thing Murdock can do is deny, and keep lying, and make those friends who know the truth lie too. Everyone associated with him is implicated or corrupted by the lie. There’s no going back.

Bendis has a reputation for writing comics with snappy, fragmented, David Mamet–ish dialogue, but what’s made his Daredevil stand out is the way he plays with time. His chronology leaps about, building up to crucial moments and then jumping back to lead up to them from a different angle, opening up incidents you’ve seen to reveal additional details. And nobody else draws the way Maleev does — everything looks like some combination of a police sketch and a photo sent through a copy machine until its textures congeal into a series of almost tactile black blobs. When he does flashbacks to incidents in the ’60s, he makes them look like a 40-year-old comic-book page: faintly yellowed backgrounds, bolder ink lines, colors made of visible arrays of dots. This Daredevil is grounded in comics’ history, but Bendis and Maleev are also aware of their own place in that history, and they’re trying to make a mark on it.

Which brings us back to Birds of Prey: Sensei and Student as a "well-written guilty pleasure." Simone knows how to push her readers’ buttons — there’s something hugely entertaining happening on almost every page. But nobody’s ever going to refer to "the classic Simone/Benes/Golden/Bennett/Richards/Lei/Jose/Manley/Hanna era of Birds of Prey," because it doesn’t have an æsthetic of its own. And by the end of Sensei and Student, Simone has put all of its pieces back where they were when she began. That’s not a reason to feel guilty over enjoying it — it’s just a sign that the book’s genuine pleasure is also a transient one.

Issue Date: April 22 - 28, 2005
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